IMAGE: GRAY WHALE OFF CALIFORNIA
Reed Saxon  /  AP
A gray whale dives off the Southern California coast near the Palos Verdes Peninsula on Jan. 16.
updated 2/4/2008 8:37:31 PM ET 2008-02-05T01:37:31

Environmental groups seeking to protect whales from the potentially harmful effects of sonar cheered a legal victory against the Navy and the Bush administration.

U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ruled Monday that the Navy is not exempt from complying with both the National Environmental Policy Act and a court injunction that created a 12 nautical-mile no-sonar zone off Southern California.

"It's an excellent decision," said Joel Reynolds, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is spearheading the legal fight. "It reinstates the proper balance between national security and environmental protection."

Scientists have said loud sonar can damage the brains and ears of marine mammals, and may mask the echoes from natural sonar that some whales and dolphins use to locate food.

The president signed a waiver Jan. 15 exempting the Navy and its anti-submarine warfare exercises from the injunction, arguing they are vital to the nation's national security.

"We disagree with the judge's decision," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Monday. "We believe the orders are legal and appropriate."

The judge also said she has "significant concerns about the constitutionality of the President's exemption," but that "a finding on this issue is not necessary" to reinstate the sonar injunction.

The Navy maintains it already minimizes risks to marine life, and has employed sonar for decades without seeing any whale injuries. It said the sonar is essential for tracking submarines.

The carrier strike group of the USS Abraham Lincoln wrapped up a sonar training exercise last week. There are currently no such training exercises off the coast of California that use sonar.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco had been expected to rule on the future of the Navy exercises last month. But after Bush's decision, the appeals court sent the issue back to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to consider.

Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Cindy Moore said the military was studying the decision, but did not say what its next legal move may be.

Government attorneys can appeal Cooper's decision to the 9th Circuit or could ask the appeals court to allow sonar exercises until the appeal is resolved.

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